Of narratives, barriers, and potential…
Our brains are brilliant at taking an argument, a proposition, or a story, and searching through our memory banks to find anecdotes and examples that will either support or contradict it.
In the adversarial environments of law, debate, and obviously Twitter, this skill is often considered invaluable, selecting and highlighting the evidence that fits our version of a story, or that confounds, contradicts, or simply cuts across the stories and arguments of our opponents, to ultimately win the case in the eyes of the jury.
But this same trait can also stunt our ability to learn and grow, to question our assumptions and to see the world from different perspectives, because we are all, always, far more likely to find supporting evidence for stories we like, than those that we don’t. In psychology this even has a name: confirmation bias.
In John Le Carré’s landmark novel, Tinker, Taylor, Soldier, Spy, the protagonist, George Smiley, at one point reflects on a brilliant piece of advice he once received: “Learn the facts, then try on the stories like clothes.”
So, my first question is this: where have the facts changed, but the beliefs within your organisation stayed the same – where would your people most benefit from trying on a new story?
In a trip back to my roots, over the last couple of months I’ve been helping several charities look at potential commercial opportunities. As always, we start by casting the net as wide as we can, then filtering down the ideas, merging and refining them, until we have a handful of real gems.
I never cease to be surprised by the potential we uncover, nor how those most reluctant at the start of the process are often its greatest advocates by the end. But occasionally, we find a real diamond of an opportunity, and this week was one of those weeks.
The idea in question started as the simple digitisation of a cumbersome manual process for clients, but the more we talked and refined, researched and reflected, the bigger the idea became. It is, and I don’t say this lightly, a potential gamechanger.
Getting to that diamond, though, took a lot of work.
At every stage, big legitimate barriers were raised, of cost and technology, of skills and buy-in, of risks, reputation, and board appetite, and so on. But at every stage, the narrative I’d used to open the session was repeated: “If the opportunity is big enough, we can look at how we get over the barriers, so let’s log them for now, and get back to the opportunity.
Without that mantra we would almost certainly have killed the idea before it could develop into its full potential.
So, my second question to you is this: where has a focus on perceived barriers killed a great opportunity?
Both of these questions are linked to organisational culture, because culture is built around stories – the received wisdom of how things work around here, what creates difficulty and conflict, what it takes for people to get on.
Which brings me to my third question…
Considering the pace of change, the turbulence of our times, and the challenge we all face in predicting the future, it’s not surprising that one of the ambitions emerging with increasing frequency in my strategy work over the last few years is the desire to become a more innovative “learning organisation”. And it’s an ambition I would absolutely endorse for any charity that wants to increase its presence and impact.
But as long as the prevalent culture is to look at barriers before opportunity, and to stick with the narratives of the past, that ambition will remain unfulfilled.
So, my final question is this: how does your culture need to change so that your organisation can fulfil its true potential?